Growing up in a typical middle-class Indian family, Swapna Das never imagined she would travel the world or become a professional artist. When she got into the University of Delhi’s College of Art, her parents weren’t happy. They didn’t know the art world. Das didn’t either, but she knew she wanted to be an artist. And she believed then in the same ideal she teaches her college students today: To succeed in art and in life, you have to take risks.
Clearly, Das’s gamble paid off, as her art has been displayed in galleries across the United States, India, and China. Whether exploring classic Indian aesthetics and philosophy in paintings, or capturing the chaotic nature of life in abstract ceramic sculptures, Das combines Indian ingenuity with open-ended Western styles to create richly textured works reflecting her unique experiences.
Das worked as an elementary school art teacher in India following her graduation from the University of Delhi. One of the school’s administrators wanted to have her first-graders imitate famous artists, such as Michelangelo, Van Gogh or M. F. Husain, but Das initially struggled just to get her charges to sit down. Despite such unrealistic expectations, Das eventually succeeded in teaching not just basic techniques, but also the value and fun of expressing yourself through art. The children taught her a lesson as well. “Kids are so liberated and not scared,” Das recalls. “That motivated me to bring that same attitude to my work.”
Creating art in her spare time at a local community studio wasn’t enough, though. Das quit her day job—without telling her parents—before getting married and moving across the globe. Though adjusting to a sleepy suburb of Phoenix was difficult at first, everything fell into place when she started taking art classes at Mesa Community College. Her instructor, Gingher Leyendecker, encouraged Das to reach out to professors at Arizona State University’s Masters in Fine Arts program. Accustomed to the more formal interpersonal approaches of India, Das was surprised a professor agreed to meet. The professor recommended developing a more cohesive body of work and applying to the program in the next year. However, Das didn’t want to wait. She began furiously working on her art, often for 12 hours a day. She was accepted into the MFA program four months later.
Das had to adapt to a new educational system and teach American college students while also learning a new approach to self-expression. She struggled to make her work more open-ended, rather than following the narrative style of Indian art. This led to a series of acrylic paintings, The Nine Rasas. Her discovery of charcoal led to The Ten Worlds, which explored the Buddhist concept of the ten human life states—from hell, hunger, and animality to higher states such as realization and the attainment of enlightenment through compassion. Over the course of this work, Das developed the recursive tentacle-like forms that are among her trademarks. “I used to think that my human figures are the only ones that can portray emotions,” Das explains. “I learned through my work that even these abstract elements can portray deep emotions.”
Following graduation, Das’s style continues evolving, while she teaches at the community college where she was once a student. She began experimenting and learning about ceramics, which allowed her to take her coiled forms from two to three dimensions, pursuing the new medium with the same fearlessness her young students had exemplified years before. “My subject is the same, but I wanted to create the continuation and bring those two-dimensional elements—the continuity, the movement, the flow—I wanted to see them trapped in a place. To see it as an object where I can feel it and hold it, that was very intriguing for me. I think when you have ideas in your mind, you can create anything.“